The Tea Party has no leader, no hierarchy and no national fundraising network, yet the insurgent political movement born of frustration at government spending has bolstered its clout -- and its potential for aggravation -- in the Republican Party with the nomination of U.S. Senate candidate and political newcomer Ted Cruz in Texas.
Emboldened by Cruz’s July 31 victory over Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in a primary runoff to replace retiring U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Tea Party supporters say their voice is stronger and the movement is better prepared to influence party policy.
“If Mitt Romney is the president, you know he may be with us 65 percent of the time, maybe 75 percent of the time, but probably not more than that,” said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for the Tea Party-aligned FreedomWorks PAC, based in Washington.
“We understand we’re going to need to hold him accountable as well, and the only way you do that is getting the Tea Party conservatives in the Senate,” Steinhauser said.
With his 57 percent to 43 percent victory, Cruz is poised to win election in November. No Democrat has won a statewide Texas vote since 1994. Within the Republican Party, Cruz’s nomination is seen by the Tea Party as a repudiation of the party’s old guard leadership.
Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican and co-founder of the Senate’s Tea Party Caucus, said Cruz’s victory was “a pretty clear case of establishment Republicans versus a constitutional conservative who really wanted to shake things up.”
DeMint supported 2010 Senate newcomers Marco Rubio of Florida, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and Utah’s Mike Lee in winning contests against more established members of their party.
Paul said Cruz’s win was “a huge upset but also a huge victory for the grassroots and the Tea Party.” Paul captured his own seat two years ago after waging an insurgent primary campaign against Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who had the backing of many of the state’s prominent Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Cruz’s win, coupled with Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock’s besting six-term incumbent Richard Lugar in May, has generated questions about fractures within the party.
“I do think that the Tea Party movement will continue to keep the pressure on all Republicans and all officials to get the spending under control,” said Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.
Bennett said the “game has changed” in the party’s politics, and some of it is payback for the actions of longtime Republican officeholders.
“When the Republicans had control of government, there was a failure to control spending and a failure to address some of the problems. It was Republican spending, and that was a disappointment to a lot of party members,” Bennett said, referring to the party’s control of Congress during the presidency of George W. Bush.
“You had chairmen who were loyal to the incumbents and that created a problem for some who thought some incumbents weren’t adhering to conservative principles,” such as reducing the deficit by trimming spending, he added.
Toeing the conservative line can go too far, said former U.S. Senator George Voinovich of Ohio. He is concerned about the Tea Party “not being willing to compromise” on government entitlement spending, long-term debt, deficits and reforming the tax code.
“I think all of us are really worried about where will we go next year?” Voinovich said in a telephone interview.
Making no-tax-increase pledges, such as those advocated by activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, is not helpful, Voinovich said, adding that Norquist “should go jump in the lake.”
Bennett and others dismissed the prospects of Republicans not being united in their opposition to Democratic President Barack Obama. The issue is what happens next inside their own caucus.
“The problem down the road for the Republicans is if and when the Republicans win the White House,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report.
“Then the divisions that exist in the party that, right now, are papered over by Republican focus on Obama and the Democrats and the Democratic agenda, that’s when the internal Republican divisions will start to become more important. That’s when the division will really start to matter,” he said.
For all of the David-versus-Goliath political talk, the big money in the race tilted toward Cruz. Outside groups spent $14.6 million on the Texas Republican Senate primary and runoff, more than on any other Senate race this year, according to opensecrets.org, which tracks campaign spending. Most of that went to support Cruz,
The Club for Growth political action committee spent $5.6 million on ads attacking Dewhurst. The Senate Conservatives Fund said on its website it had spent $2 million on Cruz’s behalf. Dewhurst got $5.6 million from the Texas Conservatives Fund, and loaned his campaign $19.2 million of his own fortune.
“The spending dwarfs anything we have seen in Texas in modern political history,” said Mark Jones, who heads the political science department at Rice University in Houston.